NEA Executive Director John Stocks Addresses Delegates to the NEA Representative Assembly

Orange County Convention Center – Orlando, Florida
Saturday, July 6, 2015

Thank you President Lily Eskelsen García, Vice President Becky Pringle, Secretary Treasurer Princess Moss, Members of the NEA Executive Committee, delegates, association staff, special guests. And I am pleased to be joined by my wife and former Idaho Education Association President, Connie Hutchison and my sister Katy Stocks.

Happy 4th of July! Today is the day to celebrate our great and gloriously diverse nation. Today is a day we celebrate the fact that America’s light of hope and opportunity still shines. America’s light revealed itself when the United States Supreme Court upheld healthcare for every American. America’s light showed itself again last week with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision. America’s light is the beacon of hope and opportunity that President Obama has provided the Dreamers and their families. And on this Fourth of July, we celebrate you, you who go to work every day ready to bring America’s light to our children. After all, you are educators and educators are the very embodiment of the light.

I am also mindful that the past three weeks in particular have been full of both joy and pain. Friends, we have good reasons to celebrate. But we do so with our eyes wide-open, for we know that all is not well in our country. Racism still stalks our land. I am deeply proud of this Assembly for recognizing that institutional racism lurks in the shadows, and taking responsibility to bring it to the light. Your action yesterday is a courageous expression of this organization’s values and character and its aspirations for our society, particularly for our students.

I personally believe that we cannot challenge institutional racism without understanding the insidious entitlements of white privilege in America. White privilege is something that those of us who have benefitted from it –like me–need to spend time confronting if we truly believe in racial equality. Delegates, let us vow in the year 2015, 239 years after the American Revolution, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, and nearly 50 years after Selma and Stonewall, let us vow that as long as there is breath in our bodies, we will not allow racism or intolerance or injustice to extinguish the light of hope and opportunity in America.

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, the victims of Mother Emanuel AME Church. After each one of these horrible atrocities, I have wondered how you as educators confronted the trauma that America’s students brought with them to school the next day. How did you answer your students’ questions about whether they were safe? How did you answer your students’ questions about whether people who kill others in cold blood might be found innocent? How did you feel looking into the tearful eyes of students who told you that America may never see them as equal because of the color of their skin?

I can’t begin to imagine the heavy weight placed upon you to deal with these tragedies and questions in your schools. And yet you continue to fill your students with the same light of hope and opportunity that fuels our belief in America. We live in a country where hope and opportunity should exist in unlimited supply, where the light burns so brightly that racism dare not enter its radiance. Delegates, I’m afraid that the light of hope and opportunity is at risk in this country.

Income inequality continues to rise. We know that when families struggle, students struggle. We know that when communities struggle, schools struggle. The majority of students in our public schools are now eligible for free or reduced cost meals. That’s right. The majority of our students now come from low-income families. This is a stunning fact, in the nation with the largest gross domestic product in the world, a nation with the most millionaires and billionaires anywhere on the planet.

It is a fact that is impossible to ignore. It is a strong, clear signal that our social, political and economic systems are failing millions of Americans. Too many of our students live in communities where instead of getting the educational resources they need to realize their full potential, they are crowded in classrooms in crumbling buildings with outdated technology. Young adults, even those with a college degree, are saddled with crushing debt, having a tough time finding work, unable to start a family, buy a car, or invest in a home. And for most, post-secondary education is as distant as Pluto. Simply said, America is not working for most Americans and that has a tremendous impact on our students, our schools, and our future.

On these days when the light in America is flickering, I am inspired by the NEA pledge adopted by this Representative Assembly in 2006.“We, the members of the National Education Association of the United States, are the voice of education professionals. Our work is fundamental to the nation, and we accept the profound trust placed in us”. Delegates, our work is fundamental to the nation. And that trust is a sacred trust, rooted in how we live our core values. NEA’s core values are an expression of the enduring tenets upon which our union is built. They are our foundational and guiding principles that require no external justification. They have an intrinsic value that brings definition to the essential nature of our union. They are the indispensable expression of who we are as an organization of educators.

Our core values boldly state: We believe in a just society. We believe in equal opportunity. We believe in democracy. We believe in partnership. We believe in collective action. We believe in professionalism. These core values, these organizational beliefs, are the foundation of this great union and they must always guide our purpose, fuel our reason for existence, and unleash the moral soul of our organization.

Our core values tell us who we are. But why do we exist? What is our purpose? What is our mission? “Our mission is to advocate for education professionals and to unite our members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.” To advocate for education professionals. To unite our members and the nation. To fulfill the promise of public education. To prepare every student to succeed. To prepare every student to succeed.

Despite the flicker in America’s light, I truly believe that our opportunity to live our core values, fulfill our mission, and doggedly pursue our vision of a great public school for every student is possible. Why do I think that? Why do I think it’s possible now, in this difficult time in our history? Sisters and brothers, I’ve been an organizer all my life. I’ve been a part of progressive causes and social justice organizing my entire career. I know what movement moments look like. I know what movement moments feel like.

I also know that most people don’t recognize when they are in a movement moment. It starts organically with individual acts of disobedience; and the media mistakes these acts as isolated incidents. But over time these individuals find each other. They organize. Mass protests emerge in fits and starts, often ignited in an emotional cauldron of anger, fear, discontent and outright oppression. I believe we are in a movement moment. And more than that, delegates, I believe the conditions are ripe for a movement of a New American Majority.

This movement is fueled by growing income inequality, the scourge of racial injustice, attacks on our voting rights, a political system rigged to benefit the wealthy and powerful, the corporate takeover of our public school system, and the threat of global climate change. The signs of this growing New American Majority can be found in new organizational formations like Occupy Wall Street, Freedom to Marry, Moral Mondays, Black Lives Matter, The Fight for $15, the Dreamers, and NextGen Climate. All of these organizations have at their heart a desire for social, racial, economic, and environmental justice; and the real possibility of uniting our nation in a grand alliance.

In this grand alliance of the New American Majority, I see: African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Whites. I see people of faith and people not of faith who believe in a moral universe. I see native born and immigrant people. I see gay and straight people. I see young and not so young people. I see union members and non-union members; and all people who fervently believe that every child in the United States of America deserves the opportunity to succeed.

Let us bond with these patriots of conscience to create a New American Majority.

So I ask you: what is our contribution, as educators, to this New American Movement? Public education is the most enduring social institution in America. It is the last public institution that serves the public good. It is a sacred trust. And as we predicted, the test, label and punishment regime of the so-called ‘education reform’ movement is being rejected by a growing number of Americans and is about to collapse! Whenever there is a collapse in a dominant ideology, a vacuum is inevitably created. That vacuum can be filled by an enlightened, alternative vision or more harmful reactionary dogma. Our contribution to this New American Majority Movement is to define and lead a new vision for public education that serves all of our students, that embodies our core values and fulfills our mission. After all, you are the heart and soul of education.
So what is our vision for public education in America?

  • We envision a transformed public education system designed to serve the needs, wants, and desires of the whole child.
  • We want a public education system that prepares the next generation to steward a democracy, that models and fosters equity and justice, and that cultivates life-long learning for college and career in a prosperous and fair economy.
  • We want American public education to move from isolated islands of distinction toward a universal system of innovation and excellence.
  • We want public education to foster collaboration, where parents, students, communities, and educators all participate in creating the schools our students deserve.
  • We demand that all of our students have an opportunity to learn!
  • We want all of our students, regardless of their zip code, to receive the support, tools, and time necessary to learn.
  • We aspire for universal access to deeper learning opportunities that inspire our students’ natural curiosity, imagination and love of learning.
  • We want our students to master rigorous content. We want our students to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.
  • We want our students prepared to be citizens in our democracy.
  • We want our students to have a caring, qualified, and empowered educator.
  • We want caring educators with the resources, training, mentoring and support necessary to connect with each student in order to discover her passions and unlock his potential.
  • We want qualified educators who maintain the highest professional standards in service to their students’ learning.
  • We want educators who are empowered to use their voice, professional expertise, and judgment in the best interests of their students.
  • And finally, we want our union to be indispensable to our members’ success– in their practice, in their professional development, and in their careers.

We know what needs to be done for our students. The question is who will fight for their future? Will it be us? I submit to you that there is no one better to lead this movement than educators, and not just any educators, educators who are trained as advocates, who are organized, who are empowered to take the lead, and who belong to the NEA!

There is no such thing as a movement of one. I’m talking about a unified movement– of all of us–in pursuit of this vision. As the nation’s largest union, we are the ones who can bring together progressive allies to create the future we know our students need and deserve. Allies that bring the same fundamental values, allies who believe in and are guided by the same light, allies who are willing to stand up with us and fight injustice and challenge the status quo.

Friends, we are in a movement moment. I can feel it. I can hear it. I can see it. It’s a moment that will determine the future of public education and the future of our union. The people of America are ready for it, and the students of America, they can’t wait for it. The question is, will you join? Will you join this New American Majority Movement? Will it be you who unites our members and the nation? Will it be you who fulfills the promise of public education? Will it be you who unleashes the moral soul of our union?

In this New American Majority Movement, we will unite our communities to fight for public education. We will inspire our students’ to pursue their hopes and dreams. We will lead the movement to empower educators. We will lead the movement to close opportunity gaps for all children. We will lead the movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline once and for all. We will lead the movement that ends the re-segregation in America’s public schools. We will lead the movement to serve the whole child. NEA, this is our time, this is our moment, this is our movement! Let’s unite, let’s inspire, and let’s lead!